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Reforming Green Wedges

Melbourne’s urban growth boundary has long been one of the most contentious elements of Victorian planning policy. It affects landowners, who may lose the right to develop land they thought was able to be developed – and suffer a dramatic dip in land value. It affects endangered species, like the endangered Growling Grass Frog in Melbourne’s west, and ecosystems. The fate of these species and ecosystems is often uncertain, lying in the hands of the boundary drafters, who carve out conservation areas to protect them while holding back excessive urban sprawl. But now, due to the recent release of an obscure procedural planning document, the future looks brighter for frogs and landowners alike.

The realities of complex planning processes are that there is often little information available about the conservation value of particular parcels of land. As a result, planners rely heavily on assumptions based on desktop assessments. Serious mistakes can be made, then lie dormant under reams of dense planning documents—until the consequences for landowners and the environment may be too late to fix.

Thankfully, we now have the beginnings of a formal way to correct those mistakes. This apparently insignificant bureaucratic tweak can make all the difference to property owners and environmentalists.

In late February this year, the state planning department, the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP), launched a preliminary “working document” to guide a process for making these corrections. This process is shaped by a complex series of state and federal legal rules and obligations. Though there are as yet no formal application documents, landowners and community groups alike will be relieved that they can now make applications to adjust conservation area boundaries under the working document that sets out the department’s guidance.

This guidance is preliminary, and the next months will be crucial to its development. Fundamental issues still remain to be confirmed. These include the precise reasons that will be considered acceptable to trigger a boundary change, and the scale of changes that will be acceptable.

One of the first applications—and an environmentally critical one—is now making its way through this process. Specialist law firm Kellehers Australia has combined its planning, environmental, and water law expertise to start to shepherd through an application that will be critical to the future of the endangered Growling Grass Frog in Melbourne’s west. It seeks to correct one of the more absurd results of the former state government’s drawing of conservation area boundaries: using a desktop assessment, rather than a review on the ground, to designate a flat, dry, sheep paddock as critical habitat for the wetland-dwelling endangered frog. Unfortunately, making this application involves wading through reams of official planning documents – DELWP’s new guidance is just the tip of the iceberg. Yet the rewards will be great: for landowners, who will regain their true land value, and frogs, who will gain a wetter home and a more secure future.

Dr Rebecca Nelson

 

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